Indiana’s 2-3 zone defense took a pounding across several forms of media during and immediately after Sunday’s game against Michigan State, and the fact that the Hoosiers won 75-70 for what is, to this point, their signature win of the season is the only reason it wasn’t worse. CBS analyst Greg Anthony said at the end of the half that the zone was “Michigan State’s best friend,” and numerous Twitter luminaries lamented the mixing of defense.
But when asked why he continued to use the zone on Sunday, IU coach Tom Crean said that he thought Indiana’s defensive problems had little to do with the zone, but more to do with moments when the Hoosiers were not as on point as they needed to be in the man-to-man.
“We played a little percentage,” Crean said after the game. “We played a little risk-reward there. There were certain things that we wanted to zone that they ran. Keep the game off-balance. And they did hit some shots, but the shots that they hit were more in our poor rotations. We had to change the post-double. That’s what I’m talking about with adjustments. We changed the post-double three times in the game. That’s a sign of a really good team. They kept answering it well. They just kept coming back with something different. … When Gary Harris was making his 3’s, it was in rotation as much as anything else.”
Crean was right, and the zone wasn’t nearly as much of a problem or as much of a reason why the game was close as many people thought.
Crean used the 2-3 for most of the night as a change of pace, especially in the first half. Indiana still spent the majority of the game in man-to-man. Michigan State had the ball for 65 possessions in the game. Eight of those were fast-break, transition possessions in which Indiana was never able to truly set a defense. Of the other 57, the Hoosiers went to zone 22 times and stayed strictly in man-to-man for 35. The zone possessions were spread evenly in the two halves — 11 in each. The Hoosiers went to man-to-man 23 times in the first half and 12 in the second.
There were a few occasions when the Spartans took advantage of poor zone awareness and took advantage of what the 2-3 was giving them, and the optics of those plays were apparently ghastly enough to create the impression that it was bad the entire game. Michigan State forward Adreian Payne got an open look from above the zone with 16:15 to go in the first half and drilled it, then caught a lob pass from point guard Travis Trice with 1:06 to go in the half and dunked it behind his back.
But those were actually closer to the exception than the rule. For the game, Michigan State actually shot just 8-for-25 from the field against the zone while shooting 15-for-29 against straight man-to-man. They scored just 19 points against it (an average of .863 points per possession) and hit just three of 10 3-point attempts against it. Michigan State scored 41 points against the man-to-man (1.17 points per possession) and 10 in transition (eight on true fast breaks and two when Harris was fouled on a break.)
The Spartans were 8-for-13 from three against the man-to-man, meanwhile, thanks in large part to the reasons Crean cited. Of those eight 3-pointers, four came because the Hoosiers failed to cover shooters after double-teaming Michigan State center Derrick Nix in the post. Nix had assists on three of those 3-pointers.
Of Harris’s five 3-pointers, only one came against a zone defense, and that was on outstanding inbounds pass from the underneath the basket to where Harris was standing on the left wing for an easy catch-and-shoot 3. One of the others came in transition against man-to-man. Another came thanks to a well-set screen near the top of the key, and two early in the second half came off failed rotations on post double teams.
The zone also helped the Hoosiers because it kept them from fouling. Michigan State only shot six free throws in the game, and at no point did Indiana commit a shooting foul in the zone.
That’s not to say that the zone didn’t have its issues, or that man-to-man didn’t have its benefits. The man-to-man was a much bigger reason why the Hoosiers were able to cause 19 turnovers. Thirteen of those came in man-to-man defense, including five of the nine steals. The zone caused four turnovers and Michigan State lost the ball twice in transition.
The zone also provided Michigan State better opportunities to offensive rebound. The Spartans had 12 offensive rebounds in the game, and seven of them came against the zone despite so many fewer possessions. However, the Spartans only had nine second-chance points in the game. Three of those came after a long rebound went off an Indiana player out of bounds and the Hoosiers got to reset their defense. Two of the three Michigan State putbacks actually came against man-to-man defense.
The day before the game, Crean said he didn’t expect Sunday’s game to be a “conventional matchup game,” and said even then he expected to mix defenses to keep Michigan State off balance. Though there were a few occasions when soft spots in the zone were exposed, it appeared to serve its purpose.